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Editorial: The Good Earth; Conservation at Crossroads

Considerable though the sum may be, it’s hard to imagine a better bargain than the $280,000 the Vermont Land Trust has agreed to pay Tim and Janet Taylor to buy the development rights to their 56-acre vegetable farm in Post Mills. Land conservation projects are often about protecting the landscape from the threat of development, which certainly can be a worthy goal by itself, but this preservation effort strikes us as achieving a number of important things besides conserving a particularly lovely spot.

First and foremost is the protection of good agricultural land. The Taylors have been farming for more than three decades now, and Crossroads Farm has expanded from its original 12 acres into the 56-acre operation that employs as many as 20 hands at the height of the season and supplies restaurants, stores and Crossroads’ own farmstand. It’s a safe guess that, as with any prospering agricultural enterprise, the farm’s success is largely the result of the Taylors’ hard work and skilled management. But the Taylors say that they work some truly exceptional soil. At a time when there’s a heightened appreciation for the many advantages of cultivating local food — nutritional, environmental and communitarian, among them — the logic of protecting an unusually productive piece of land is self-evident. Keeping Crossroads in agriculture is clearly the highest and best use for the Taylors’ farm, and because good farmland often also makes for good development sites, it would be foolhardy to leave it vulnerable to the predations of the market. The Taylors plan to keep farming for the foreseeable future, but when they’re ready to sell, the Vermont Land Trust will make sure their farm ends up in the hands of someone who plans to keep it in cultivation. Stripped of its development rights, the farm will also be much more affordable to someone intending to make a living off the land — a key factor among the many inherent challenges presented by farming.

Buying the development rights to the farm also makes good sense for the community, which explains why the Thetford Conservation Commission has endorsed putting some money from the town’s conservation fund toward the preservation effort — and why each commission member has also donated personally. Crossroads has been doing business long enough now that community members can truly appreciate the potential impact of losing that farm. Tended fields certainly present a more attractive landscape than a housing development, but there’s also the value of having a convenient source of locally grown food and seasonal jobs — and an established local business that has woven itself into the fabric of the community.

When people such as the Taylors first started farming, it was far from certain that they would survive. This is hardly a hospitable region for agriculture, many of the pioneers were, like the Taylors, from decidedly nonagricultural backgrounds, and the local agricultural economy was dairy-focused. The Taylors and a number of other enterprising farm families have demonstrated that these operations are more than passing fancies of reality-challenged transplants, and the heightened interest in local foods gives every reason to expect that the farms can continue to thrive. The fact that conservation projects these days are as likely to target vegetable or specialty farms as dairy operations strikes us as deserved recognition for the generation that diversified northern New England agriculture.

For that matter, the preservation of the Crossroads Farm seems worthwhile as a way of maximizing the return on the Taylors’ lifelong investment. Creating a viable working farm is a long-term, labor-intensive effort, and to risk squandering all that hard work by leaving the land vulnerable to development would be foolish.

“We know every little pebble on the farm, and we can tell you the best spot to plant potatoes, and where not to plant lettuce,” Tim Taylor told staff writer Katie Mettler. “We love this land. It is some of the best soil in Vermont, and it can continue to feed thousands every year.”

And now, it shall.